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Voleine Amilcar was in her late twenties when she and her husband Tim Suttle bought a condo in downtown Oakland. They loved it.
Then they had two kids and their small city spot began to feel cramped.
This was 2018, and house prices were absurdly high. “We didn’t think we’d be able to afford anything—you had to be able to pay over the listing price,” said Amilcar, an executive at a communications firm.
But when they commiserated with friends over the impossibility of buying a house in the city where the couple had lived for over a decade, one neighborhood kept coming up: Maxwell Park, just west of Mills College below I-580. “Everyone said it’s the last area where you can afford to buy a home, there are lots of young families, and it’s very diverse,” Amilcar recalled.
One day when Suttle was flipping through real estate listings, there was one offering that stood out to Amilcar among all the “sterile,” generic, renovated-to-uniformity options. “I said, hey, go back, that’s a strange little house!”
The 1929 storybook Tudor—a stucco home with an arched, cobblestone-like doorway and a faux turret—would soon become theirs. Now, they spend most evenings sitting on their two-level deck, soaking in sunsets and a view of the bay and San Francisco skyline. “You forget you’re in the middle of a city”—a far cry from their downtown life, Amilcar said.
She was born in Haiti and grew up in Marin, and Suttle, who’s an IT manager at a biotech company, in Hercules. As a Black family who bought the house from a Black real estate investor, it has felt meaningful to them to carry on a broader legacy of Black homeownership in Maxwell Park.
That may be why theirs was selected among competitive offers, Amilcar said, recalling the “crazy letter” they wrote to the seller, explaining how much it would mean for their family to be chosen for the house on Meldon Avenue.
But it “felt like I was coming at a time when a transition was happening,” said Amilcar. “A lot of folks are aging out and turning over their homes to younger families.” And those now-million-dollar homes are only attainable to a select few buyers, a group much less diverse than the outgoing owners. It’s a transformation that’s occurring against a backdrop of dramatic decline in Black homeownership across Oakland.
But Maxwell Park’s era of accessibility and community among Black homeowners and other residents of color also only dates back so far. After all, the neighborhood originated as an explicitly exclusionary development.
A 1920s home-building boom
In 1921, John P. Maxwell, an Oakland hardware store owner, opened his swath of land, a near-perfect square bordered by 55th Avenue, Camden, Monticello, and Trask, for a flurry of development.
Most houses were built by Burrit and Shealey, the firm responsible for many of Piedmont’s mansions. They advertised homes in any style a buyer could want—that is, anything somewhat resembling a European aesthetic (“French,” Italian Renaissance, English Tudor). Maxwell funded an extension of a streetcar line along 55th Avenue, to appeal to buyers commuting to downtown Oakland and San Francisco.
An early advertisement explained that the similar houses would “attract families of similar means and station in life, establishing a strong community interest.” Others were more direct about the discriminatory nature of the neighborhood. “The property is restricted as to Orientals, Asiatics, and Africans,” said some newspaper ads, listing the racial exclusion as an amenity alongside the rich soil and ample lot sizes.
“Middle-class bungalow living, anticipating the later rush to the suburbs, was motivated by the paired promises of improved material circumstances and divisive social geographies,” writes Mitchell Schwarzer in Hella Town.
At the end of the 1920s, another developer, L.B. Matheyer, launched a similar development project on what was called the Chula Vista tract, including Meldon Avenue, now considered part of Maxwell Park.
Amilcar and Suttle’s very house can be spotted in an image accompanying a 1930 Oakland Tribune article announcing the first homes available in Chula Vista. “The English type home, with high pitched gable roof lines, predominates,” it said. The homes came with electric fridges, fans, and, thrillingly, imported wallpaper. The prices at the time: $7,000 to $17,000.
White flight and neglect
Growing up in Maxwell Park in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Russell Yee grew accustomed to his friends moving away.
As a child, Yee, now a docent at the Oakland Museum of California, felt saddened by each departure but didn’t know why the community was fragmenting. As an adult, he recognizes the phenomenon as “white flight,” where middle-class families left en masse for the suburbs.
“Looking back, it’s completely classic,” said Yee.
Historians say Maxwell Park drew middle-class Black homebuyers, who could now access the aging housing stock that white families were leaving. Their arrival, making the neighborhood more diverse, prompted even more white residents to move away. In the seven years between 1971 and 1978, when Yee’s oldest and youngest brothers graduated from Maxwell Park Elementary, the school had transitioned from majority-white to majority-Black, class photos show.
The trajectory of the Meldon house fits this pattern. According to city directories and census records, the first residents in the 1930s appear to be a white family named Sheehan, whose patriarch owned a beverage company. His son Edward married 18-year-old Beverly, who lived a few houses away.
The home changed hands a few times, and in the early ‘60s, Ellis and Patricia Harlow bought it. Harlow taught French and German at Oakland High School, and authored popular history textbooks.
In the early ‘70s, a Black family moved in, and they’d live there for the next several decades, with different family members owning the house over the years.
In 1982, a grease fire in the kitchen set the house aflame, according to an Oakland Tribune story. At the time, there were five foster children living with the family, and they were handed to firefighters through a bedroom window. Nobody was hurt, and today the house shows no signs of damage.
Yee remembers Maxwell Park falling into disrepair in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “It was everything that was affecting Oakland at the time—the deindustrialization, the departure of lots and lots and lots of jobs, the flight of retail, the hollowing out of downtown,” he said.
Gentrification in Maxwell Park
For residents who lived through the era of neglect in Maxwell Park, the price tags on houses there these days are stunning to see. And they have mixed feelings about it.
“The gentrification is great news for them,” said Yee of his parents, who still live in the house where he was raised. Their home value has appreciated tremendously and “they just are so happy to see how it’s perking up, with families walking around and more sense of life.” But he’s acutely aware that a family like his could never buy there today.
The same goes for Colette Washington, who bought her Maxwell Park home for $220,000 22 years ago, and now, as a real estate agent, helps her neighbors buy and sell $1 million houses. She was on the team that sold the Meldon Ave. house to the current owners.
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Even in the short time since that 2018 sale, home prices in Maxwell Park have risen substantially, according to real estate data shared by Washington. That year, just one of the 69 houses sold in the neighborhood went for over $1 million. In 2021? A full 35 of the 98 sales jumped that threshold.
“For me, it’s great as a homeowner and investor in the area,” Washington said. “But it’s tough for the buyers, very tough.”
She’s seen the diversity that drew her to Maxwell Park dwindle.
“It hurts my heart when I see how much it’s changing, and how fast,” she said. “Brand new people who don’t understand the culture of Oakland can step on toes. I always tell my clients, buyers who are coming into Oakland, to make friends with your neighbors—Oakland’s got good people everywhere, in every neighborhood.”
Black homeownership rates have plummeted in Oakland
The changes in Maxwell Park are happening in many parts of the city. While the overall homeownership rate in Oakland has been stable since 2000, around 41%, not all communities have experienced this steadiness, said Abbie Langston, senior associate with PolicyLink.
“The Black population in Oakland is the one that’s seen the greatest turbulence in homeownership over the last couple decades,” said Langston. “A storm of dynamics have come, with increasing home prices and the subprime mortgage crisis.”
Between 2000 to 2019, the Black homeownership rate in Oakland dropped from 37% to 31%, according to census data. The 2019 white homeownership rate was 53%.
“Couple that with the Black population loss that Oakland has experienced, and it’s an even starker tale,” Langston said.
Black people accounted for 47% of Oakland’s population in 1980, but today just 20%.
The long history of barriers to homeownership for Black households—from exclusionary policies like redlining, to predatory lending targeting Black neighborhoods—”is morally unjust, and quite frankly it’s economically a liability for the region,” Langston said. “We know for most people, homeownership is the single most important tool available for building wealth.”
Amilcar didn’t grow up in Oakland, but she’s cognizant of what’s lost when there’s turnover and displacement of longstanding communities in places like Maxwell Park.
“Neighborhoods feel more transactional,” she said. “Doors stay closed more.”
But despite the recent change she’s already witnessed on her new block, there is still plenty of diversity and plenty of kids for her children to play with—a saving grace during peak pandemic times when all there was to do was run around outdoors.
They’ve made their home a refuge too.
Striking art, from both Haiti and emerging Oakland artists, adorns the walls. Amilcar is a painter and has plans for a home studio.
The boys like to sit at the kitchen island, engrossed in YouTube videos and chowing down on apple slices (absolutely no peel is allowed on chatty, 5-year-old Aster’s).
For 10-year-old Ellis, the house is an improvement on the condo he still remembers, as it’s “more spacious.”
The adults love the mix of old and ultra-modern in their house, which was significantly renovated by the investor who owned it before them. There’s an open floor plan on the main floor, a nonfunctional but regal fireplace, and a colorful stained glass piece in the stairwell.
“It greets you when you open the door, and when the light hits at certain ways, it can feel very majestic and spiritual,” Amilcar said.
This was one of the features that evoked the long history of the house to her when she first viewed it.
“You got a sense that the home had been loved,” she said.